Sometimes, to echo the old phrase, stories take on a life of their own. As a new ESPN “Backstory” documentary notes, “The Decision,” the made-for-TV special that aired ten years ago this summer, affected its subject, LeBron James, with additional implications that reverberated far beyond the superstar forward.
Maverick Carter and Rich Paul, two of James’s closest advisors, thought the special would allow James to control his own narrative. They got ESPN to donate an hour of prime-time television (James donated proceeds from ads his longtime charity: the Boys and Girls Clubs) and demanded freelance sportscaster Jim Gray host the special — a man not even affiliated with the network. Ultimately, however, the special ended up having many unintended consequences for James, the world of sports, and media at large.
Before he died in January, then-NBA Commissioner David Stern said he pleaded with ESPN management to cancel the “The Decision.” Even as Carter and James produced the special, James seemed to have given little thought as to what he would say during the show. Several minutes of awkward conversation between James and Gray, done to heighten the suspense, led to LeBron’s infamous statement that “this fall I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”
The new “Backstory” documentary reveals previously undisclosed details about “The Decision.” For one, the idea came from Drew Wagner, a Columbus resident and Detroit Pistons fan, who wrote into then-ESPN columnist Bill Simmons suggesting a LeBron free agency special in the fall of 2009. Simmons took it to Carter, who then engaged agent Ari Emanuel, the brother of former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Carter and Emanuel got James to agree, and the group pitched the idea to ESPN.
Despite Simmons’ original involvement in creating “The Decision,” he soured on the way James presented himself, calling the show — and James’s very public rejection of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the hometown team he played for — one of the meanest things an athlete ever did. Although his wording echoed Kobe Bryant’s 1996 announcement that he would “take [his] talents” to the NBA rather than attending college, James’s line about taking his talents to South Beach drew widespread condemnation as narcissistic.
As James and his team flew to Miami that evening, they grew somber, knowing that the show did not go over well. Yet as cringeworthy as the special proved, the responses also took on an additional tone. Within hours, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert issued an open letter calling James’s actions a “cowardly betrayal,” a “shocking act of disloyalty,” and a “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal.”
At best, Gilbert’s letter sounded churlish and petulant, like a jilted lover attempting to lash out at a former mate. But several African-Americans interviewed for the documentary noted the racial element between a special designed to empower James as an athlete, and Gilbert’s attempt to “keep him in his place.” Former ESPN anchor Chris Broussard said Gilbert treated James “like a runaway slave.” In 2017, James admitted he viewed the letter through a racial prism.
In 2014, James and Gilbert engaged in a reconciliation of sorts when Gilbert deleted his 2010 letter from the Cavaliers’s website and James returned to Cleveland. ESPN’s Bomani Jones said that if Gilbert had sent him a letter like that, he would never have worked for Gilbert again. James, however, thought he was using Gilbert rather than the other way around, treating the owner as a vehicle to finally bring his long-suffering hometown a championship — which he did, in 2016.
Rise of the “Superteams”
In 2010, “The Decision” changed the NBA’s balance of power—quite possibly forever. The day before James decided to head for Miami, Toronto Raptors center Chris Bosh signed his contract with the Heat. Coupled with the Heat’s existing point guard, Dwayne Wade, the triumvirate represented the first “superteam,” a team constructed by superstar players deciding to play with one another, rather than decisions by management to build a team from scratch via trades, the draft, or reliance on both.
In that sense, James’s decision represented as stark a break from tradition as the method of his announcement. As the recent ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” demonstrated, two decades before James, Michael Jordan hated his rivals — particularly the Detroit Pistons. For Jordan and most players throughout NBA history, they wanted to beat their rivals, not join them.
While criticizing James for the melodramatic elements of “The Decision,” ESPN analyst and former Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon credits James for helping to empower future players to pick the environment that best works for them. In the same breath, however, he said James’s decision to join a “superteam” that won two championships in Miami does not put him in the same league as Michael Jordan, who molded a team in Chicago that won six titles, rather than jumping elsewhere in search of a championship ring.
In the end, as the documentary’s reporter Don Van Natta, Jr., noted in its closing segment, “The Decision” represented the beginning of a new altered, democratized media landscape. While it accelerated a trend whereby James and other athletes could speak out on issues of importance to them, “The Decision” also took place at a time when social media began to give all Americans a platform to weigh-in on all manner of political and cultural issues.
Ten years ago, it seemed unlikely that a real estate developer and entertainer, even a famous one, could make a serious run for political office. But Twitter gave Donald Trump a springboard to his political career, just as “The Decision” and other media platforms empower James and others to amplify and control the messages they want to send about important issues.
Some of Trump’s political supporters wish that athletes eschew political statements. Fox News host Laura Ingraham once famously told James to “shut up and dribble.” Doubtless, James, and some of his supporters wish that Trump would silence his Twitter account. Neither seems likely to happen soon, however, the result of a democratized and polarized media landscape that in many ways dates back to “The Decision.”